How the History and Horror of Under the Banner of Heaven Was Brought to Life

From the origins of the Mormon Church to a 1980s crime scene, costume designer Joseph La Corte told E! News all about packing two centuries' worth of styles into Under the Banner of Heaven.

By Natalie Finn Apr 30, 2022 12:00 PMTags
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How to dress 32 actors for three scenes, all to be shot in a day, and all of which require a different outfit for each person?

"That right there is 100 costume changes in one day," Joseph La Corte, the costume designer for Hulu's Under the Banner of Heaven, told E! News in a Zoom interview, holding up the chart he made to keep track of the sprawling family tree at the center of the historical true crime drama. 

But that was just one of the many comes-with-the-territory challenges facing La Corte and his team as they set out to clothe a massive cast for the centuries-spanning limited series. Based on Jon Krakauer's book of the same name, it's about a grisly double murder committed in 1984, but also travels back 160 years to western frontier life and the origin story of Mormonism.

Basically La Corte's approach was, "OK, I'm going to do two different series at the same time," he explained. And even going from 1820 to 1830 was a lift, when a neoclassical silhouette gave way to the Victorian styles that became popular, changing everything from a woman's sleeve to the newfangled zipper in men's pants. 

"It was a lot," he said with a laugh.

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A normal-size crew was about 40 people, including his "incredible" assistant costume designers Kristin Isola, who presided over the 19th century, and Beverlee June Fix, who shored up the 20th, he said. But when they had multiple big scenes going at once, "a wagon train over here and a wedding over here," his department could have 70 or 80 people on hand.

Courtesy of Joseph La Corte

Of course, getting the details right, especially in the scenes depicting Mormon ceremonies, was paramount—both for the expected overall quality of the show and because series creator and Oscar-winning writer Dustin Lance Black was raised in the church. And, La Corte noted, "Everyone wanted to be "totally honest and accurate and respectful to the faith."

The production did get some pre-emptive pushback on social media, he shared, from concerned church members who didn't like the idea of their sacred garments being reproduced. But they had input from Mormon historians and technical advisers, including one, La Corte said, who turned out to be "an acquaintance of a friend of Brigham Young's great-great-granddaughter, who had a cedar trunk in her home with all the undergarments through time."

She wouldn't send the heirlooms their way, but she held them up for a camera so the crew could get a good look at the real deal.

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"So we did the best we could to get those right," La Corte said, and the temple ensembles were all "vetted in the end." 

But if a scene calling for a bunch of plain-looking white robes otherwise doesn't sound like much of a chore, that's because looks are deceiving. La Corte walked us through what it was really like amassing thousands of garments for the intense shoot:

Calm Before the Storm

Daisy Edgar-Jones plays Brenda Lafferty (née Wright), who was a beauty queen and local TV anchor before she married husband Allen Lafferty at 21 and gave birth to daughter Erica a year later. Brenda was 24 when Allen's brothers Dan and Ron Lafferty killed her and her 15-month-old child on July 24, 1984, later unapologetically declaring they were following an order from God.

"She plays from senior year of high school through college, through marriage, through pregnancy, through post-pregnancy," costume designer Joseph La Corte explained of mapping out Edgar-Jones' wardrobe to trace her trajectory as Brenda's life became more insular once she married into the Lafferty family. And, sometimes they'd shoot scenes from three time periods in one day, "so we had to build a series of underpinnings and paddings so she could have pregnancy weight" one hour and none the next.

Life of the Party

"We were very fortunate to have access to some of the Lafferty family photo albums, so we actually got to see what the real Brenda wore and how it changed" over the years, LaCorte said. "You could just tell from the photos what a magnetic person she was. Every photo is always with her in a group of people having the best time, and she wore bright colors and fun things."

As her circumstances become direr and Brenda pushes back but is increasingly alarmed, "the clothes shift," La Corte noted. "She still tries to wear color, she still tries to be her, but you definitely see the transition."

Building Blocks of Faith

For an endowment, a ceremony in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints required for members of the faith planning to enter into a celestial marriage (forever and then some), they wear "so many layers," La Corte described.

The specifically Mormon underwear known as temple garments are worn next to the skin, so women had to wear any other underpinnings over that, and then comes "the actual robe, which is sort of toga-esque," he said. "Then there's a sash, then there's an apron of grape leaves, which signifies Adam and Eve. Then there's another sash and then there's a headpiece. So everything was about 10 pieces per person, multiplied by 80, so that's like 800 pieces of clothing."

And yes, that makes it as difficult for people to use the bathroom as it sounds.

In Uniform Fashion

La Corte shared that, with the lead actors not being of the Mormon faith, there were some nervous jitters to work out when they first gathered in their traditional ensembles.

"The first day when they all came together, they just laughed at each other for an hour," he recalled. Asked if that was a common reaction when actors are dressed in period garb, he said, "A lot of people tend to say [to each other], 'Oh my god, this period looks amazing on you,' or, 'Oh my god, you were born in the wrong decade.' But for this it was interesting, because it was a bit like people felt they were doing something taboo because it's a religion. So putting these things on, I think the nervous reaction was to laugh."

Uneasy Is the Head

"We see Daisy with her headpiece on, it's sort of lopsided," LaCorte said, pointing out a moment where Brenda Lafferty has on the traditional headwear, made here from organza. But apparently, according to Mormon advisers they spoke to, "that's one thing that all the women always complain about," that the headpiece "doesn't stay, it falls all over the place."

So for anyone watching who's wondering why Brenda's veil is crooked...the veil is always crooked.

Oh, This Old Thing?

"Emma Smith alone had 13 costume changes, and those were mostly all done by hand. There are very few that saw a sewing machine," La Corte said of crafting the wardrobe for Tyner Rushing, who plays the wife of Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith. For one dress in particular, each sleeve took 16 hours to hand-stitch and pleat, "and it just had to be done perfectly. So, it took a long time, and in the end it was over a thousand costumes for the 1800s."

And that wasn't for a wedding gown or any special occasion for the supporting character. Rather, that was just one of Emma's regular dresses that she wore for dinner at home with her husband. 

Moreover, young Emma had some action shots, "so those dresses—not to mention all of the undergarments, the bloomers, the overskirt, the underskirt, the chemisette"—had to be duplicated for multiple takes.

Take Five

Key to any production is multiples—the three or four (or more) identical versions of the same piece that can be switched out as needed.

"For instance, one of our characters is in multiple fights, and you make at least four, if not five [outfits], to get started," La Corte explained. "You have meetings to discuss, 'Hey, we're going to shoot this guy, how many times are we going to shoot him?' And then there's a budget, so you have to go, "Hey guys, I can give you four sets of multiples but I can't give you any more unless you increase the budget.'"

More Than Meets the Eye

As simple as a man's button-down shirt from the 1970s or '80s might seem, and as easy as one may be to acquire in a vintage shop, that's not how it works.

"There were two tiny rental houses in Calgary [where they filmed], but most of the clothes came from L.A., London, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal. And most of the fabric came from New York. But it's funny you bring up shirts, because Dan [played by Wyatt Russell] is constantly doing things" to rough up his clothes," noted La Corte. "Yes, you can find that vintage shirt, but then you need 10 of them, so you have to make them in the end anyway."

Fancy Footwork

"For the 1800s, fortunately there are a lot of reenactment companies out there, Civil War reenactment and whatnot, so a lot of the shoes, especially for extras, were sort of" readily available, La Corte detailed when asked how they acquired all the retro footwear, especially for the 19th century scenes. "But for Joseph Smith, because you're going to see it so clearly on camera—and I won't explain why—but we had to build [his boots] so they were authentic. And the same with Emma, young Emma gets up on a horse and rides away, so you're going to see her shoes."

In the 20th century, he continued, "the shoes actually changed a lot between the '70s and the '80s, but when we're shooting the '70s scenes, you put on these vintage shoes from rental houses and they literally fall apart. There are so many times I've been on shoots and we'll be filming, and suddenly there'll be a rainstorm and we keep filming and suddenly the shoes just fall apart as the actor walks. You either tape them up or switch it out and hope no one notices."

Size Small

Working with kids is always a bit tricky, not least because they tend to grow over the course of a long shoot, and in this case, there were many children to dress and you couldn't just pluck stuff off the rack at Target.

"Some of these kids, we had to make them look really young and [take them] through their teen years, so that was also a challenge," La Corte said. Hair and makeup, headed up by Jo-Dee Thomson and Ashly Mckessock, respectively, "of course played a huge role in that. And [vintage] kids' clothing is the hardest thing to come by, because kids ruin their clothes. They get discarded. So we ended up making a lot of the principle children's clothes."

Contemporary, Yet... Not

The scenes taking place between 1981 and 1984 in and around Provo, Utah, where the Laffertys grew up, wouldn't be confused with anything the kids were watching on MTV in those days.

"There was no Internet, there were no cell phones, so the only way you knew about fashion was from magazines and television and the Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs," La Corte said. "Not to mention they were five and sometimes 10 years behind in the way they looked, so you definitely see a lot of '70s influence still in the beginning of the '80s when we portray it. We changed [the styles] a little bit for '84 so you could really see that we were in the '80s—but we stayed away from anything too flashy, because that wasn't very Mormon."

Braving the Elements

Utah may have a dry, arid climate, but this was Calgary standing in for the Beehive State. "Most of the show takes place in the summer or the fall," La Corte said, but when Daisy was shooting a promo shot in a bathing suit, "10 feet away is snow. They hired people to come in with blowtorches and melt all the snow, almost daily after November started. And one time we were shooting a big massacre scene [in the 1800s], and it down-poured snow the night before. They brought in two helicopters to blow the snow away."

On the Job

Andrew Garfield plays Detective Jeb Pyre, a devout Mormon whose faith is shaken as he investigates Brenda and Erica's murder (and a fictional character inspired by a real cop who worked the Lafferty case).

He and Daisy were "both really great collaborators because they had such a clear vision of how they saw themselves, and thankfully it lined up with how Lance and I saw them," La Corte said. "For Andrew, [his character] was based in reality, so we talked and saw so many pictures of these small-town detectives who wore a suit and a tie."

All the Small Things

"Putting on the gun holster, putting on the badge" helped Andrew get into character, La Corte said. And, Jeb is purposefully wearing his father's watch.

"One thing we did for Daisy," he added, "I didn't know why, but just from the minute I read [the script], I wanted her to have a necklace with the letter 'B' on it. And she wears this from the beginning to the end, she always wears that necklace, and I think when she put it on, she knew it was the finishing touch to becoming Brenda."

All Systems Go

Asked if there was a particular moment he was most proud of, La Corte shared, "The parade that you've seen in the trailer, that turned into this parade."

As they planned the scene, it was "can we get this, can we add this, we need more floats, we need a marching band, flag twirlers!' I was like, 'Sure, sure, sure!'" he recalled. "But when I saw that parade come around the corner, when we were rolling—I'm a crier." 

And going back to the wild frontier, "there's one giant scene in the 1800s of wagons in a circle, protecting themselves. When you see these amazing shots of everyone on horseback, it's just like, 'Wait, you did this? We did this?'" 

An exhausting job well done.

The final episode partly takes place in Reno, Nev., where the costume department finally got to indulge in some splashier get-ups, for cocktail waitresses, clowns and other assorted Circus Circus casino-goers. But "by the time we got there," he recalled, they were fried. "We'd been doing parades and wagon trains and massacre after massacre in the 1800s, and temple ceremonies and weddings. Everything was a movie, every episode was a whole movie. And that's what they wanted and that's what we delivered, but that pace and being in Calgary with no resources, was extremely challenging."

It was all worth it, though, every time he saw the actors in wardrobe.

"We were so lucky with this cast," he said. "All of them, even the day players, and Andrew was amazing, Wyatt was incredible—and so many times they put clothes on and were like, 'Oh, yeah, this is it. I get it now.' So that's always a great moment to have."