Sins and Sensuality: An Interview with ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ Director Isabel Sandoval
Series lead Andrew Garfield only had 30 minutes to prepare for one of the most emotionally devastating scenes in 'Under the Banner of Heaven'.
What do you get when you combine one of the most impassioned actors of our generation with one of the most intuitively sensual filmmakers on this side of Zion? You get one hell of an emotional powder keg.
Under the Banner of Heaven, Episode 6 “Revelation”, written by Gina Welch and directed by Isabel Sandoval, is the series’ penultimate episode that follows Detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield), Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones), and Ron Lafferty (Sam Worthington) as they confront their own personal devastation and convictions while grappling with the consequences of their spiritual dissolutions. Under the direction of Sandoval, each scene of crippling unease highlighted by Brenda, Ron, and Jeb’s inner turmoil feels so sacred and personal, almost as if the camera shouldn’t be there.
“[This episode is] the most introspective [and] the most emotional. And, I think it's also the most purely spiritual episode of the series.” Sandoval tells Script Magazine. “Because the rest of the time, it's a very propulsive series because of the true-crime element of it and the mystery at the center. But I feel in this episode, at least the three main characters, Brenda, Ron, and Jeb, take a pause amidst all the action and just deal with their own crisis of faith.”
In what is sure to be the breakout scene for the series (and my own personal campaign clip to get Garfield an Emmy) Jeb experiences a complete loss of faith and disenchantment with the religion he once held so dear. Unable to sleep due to increasing pressures from the Mormon elders to stop his murder investigation, Jeb decides to sit in his car in the garage and read a forbidden text called “Mormonism: Shadow or Reality”, a scathing expose and critique on The Church of Latter-Day Saints. With each page Jeb reads, the more devastated he becomes until he has a full-on meltdown marking the last remnants of the faithful family man we knew when the series started.
“I really wanted that scene to land because it’s a really emotional climax for Jeb Pyre,” Sandoval said. “I gave Andrew, 30 minutes to get into that scene, and [his] performance simply took my breath away.
In this interview, Sandoval talks to us about her faith, sensuality, and working with Andrew Garfield to create such a powerful episode.
Destiny Jackson: How did this episode come to you and what made you want to direct it?
Isabel Sandoval: I was actually in Venice, premiering my short film Shangri-La when I got an email from the agent at CAA with the first scripts for the first six episodes of Under the Banner of Heaven. At that point, they were already shooting in Calgary and I was like, 'What the hell? What is this show?' And then I realized it's Dustin Lance Black, it's Andrew Garfield, Daisy Edgar-Jones like, oh my God. So I finished reading the scripts overnight. And I told my agent that, 'Yes, I would love to meet with the team.' I found the story really compelling. At that point, I hadn't read the Jon Krakauer book, but it resonated with me deeply as a story of, I guess, religious fundamentalism. And I am by no means Mormon, I grew up Catholic. I was raised Catholic in the Philippines. And Catholics in the Philippines can be neurotically conservative. And in fact, I also had the same journey of ambivalence about Catholicism in that, the older I became, I realized I was queer and also learned more about the history of the Roman Catholic Church and the atrocities and the injustices that it's committed over the centuries, I found the parallels and what the characters in Under the Banner of Heaven were going through and were grappling in terms of the crisis of faith. And that's ultimately what made me really pursue the interview with Dustin Lance Black.
Destiny: A common theme in your own films like Apparition, Lingua Franca, Seniorita, and the upcoming Tropical Gothic, deal with women or trans/queer characters being oppressed by political power structures. Which I find similar to Jeb’s own recognition of stifling religious structure in certain aspects of Mormonism. This is your first time directing a TV show, albeit a religiously focused one, but did the themes of your other films help you navigate the vibe of this episode?
Isabel: Brenda Lafferty’s character was quite similar to characters in my own films. Because these are women who are disempowered or disenfranchised in some way due to the patriarchal structures and societies that they thrive in. And they end up going against those powers at their own personal risk. But of course, we know what happens to Brenda here. [However,] it’s a similar moral and emotional arc that my characters in Senorita, Apparition, and Tropical Gothic go through as well. Brenda was one of my anchors to be able to really get into the meat of this episode and tackle it that way.
Destiny: You're known for sensual cinema. And Under the Banner of Heaven isn’t a sexy show by any means. But this episode I feel is perfect for your wheelhouse because it is the most emotional and intimate in the series. You’ve got the hot tub makeout scene with Ron Lafferty at the Mormon compound, that chilling scene with Brenda asking the priests for a divorce. How did you balance your own cinematic creativity in line with the show's vision?
Isabel: As a filmmaker who embraces and explores sensuality in cinema, I’ve come to realize that essentially the flip side of sensuality is spirituality. It’s a major tenant of Kabbalah, which is this Eastern mysticism type of belief in that it's about desire and expressing erotic or sexual desire. Whereas in a more spiritual vein of that desire, it's a yearning for a sublime and transcendent experience and that's what happens to a few of the characters here in this episode. With Ron Lafferty [Sam Worthington]’s character, he thought he may have found his own version of paradise and Earth when he made it to that John Bryan’s compound. But then when he was baptized and he had that sensual moment with John, he realizes that he was not into that and that [free love lifestyle] spoiled that experience for him.
With Brenda, that scene where she’s being given the blessing by the Mormon leaders where, again, we are experiencing with her in that moment, both the feeling of empowerment, but also the trepidation and the anxiety of the responsibility that she now has to bear to bring back the Lafferty men into the fold. And it's those moments and it's those scenes that I really relish making in this episode. As you mentioned, and quite rightly, that it's the most introspective, it's the most emotional. And I think it's also the most purely spiritual episode of the series because the rest of the time, it's a very propulsive series because of the true-crime element of it and the mystery at the center. But I feel in this episode, at least the three main characters, Brenda, Ron and Jeb, take a pause amidst all the action and just deal with their own crisis of faith.
Destiny: Jeb has to confront a life-altering change in faith. Luckily, he’s played by Andrew Garfield who is, according to Martin Scorsese and Lin-Manuel Miranda, one of the most empathic actors of our time. So in your experience having worked with him, what did he bring to the table? What was it like collaborating with Andrew and giving him direction?
Isabel: I was pleasantly surprised that this actor, who is not only exceptionally talented, but also a superstar, had been so supportive, so wonderful, and just a warm human being. I remember the first time I arrived on set to observe the episode prior to mine, a month before I was supposed to shoot my episode, Andrew introduced himself to me in between takes. And I was just there trying to be unobtrusive. So I really appreciated him making that gesture, especially since that was my first TV set. In the week before we shot, I was sending him my thoughts and notes about certain scenes that I thought were especially crucial for his character arc. And he wasn’t able to do Zoom because he was [busy] promoting Tick, Tick…Boom! But the day before we shot, he had been in transit all day, but then he arrived late that night and sent me a text just wishing me well on our first day together. And I thought that was really sweet of Andrew, but more importantly, Andrew is a consummate professional. I mean this in the highest praise, that he expects very highly of himself, and he demonstrates that excellence and the pursuit of it while he's working. And you have no choice as his collaborator to step up to him and manifest that same excellence yourself. And I just feel incredibly honored and privileged to have worked with Andrew. And I hope to have the chance to work with him more in the future.
Destiny: And then you used him to emotionally devastate himself and the audience with this car scene at the end of the episode! Talk to us about how you managed to use this unique play of camera angles, the absence of light and shadow, and Andrew’s tears to help formulate the loss of faith.
Isabel: This was one of the scenes I emailed Andrew about. Initially, that was supposed to be set in one of the [Pyre’s] bathrooms. But I thought logically if Jeb wants to hide that he’s reading this forbidden book, he wouldn’t do that in the bathroom because that would be the first place his wife would look. So I thought about him reading in the car while he’s in the garage because it’s technically not part of the house. The garage also conveys a feeling of isolation and alienation that Jeb was experiencing at that time. This moment was a culmination of the depths that he’s plumbed to get to that point of what is an existentially dark moment for him, a dark night of the soul. First from his family because of the increasing erosion of his faith due to what he’s witnessed and then from what he’s heard from the different characters in this case. And when I was talking to Andrew about it, my approach was that these actors know their characters a lot more intimately than I do, I've only been directing this for an episode. So I wanted to be able to support their process and not get in the way of that in order to create an environment that's conducive for them to be present and for their performance to feel raw, vulnerable and immediate. And that’s the conversation that I had with Andrew. I wasn't telling him like, 'Do this, do this.' It was more like, 'Andrew, you know what to do.' I also talked to the cinematographer [Tobie Marier-Robitaille] to create a mood and feeling through shadow and light that evokes both moral ambivalence and ambiguity to set the stage for Andrew to have Jeb grapple with his crisis of faith. I gave Andrew, 30 minutes to get into that scene, and [his] performance simply took my breath away.
Destiny: What was the biggest challenge you faced while directing this particular episode and how did you overcome it?
Isabel: Working with the different methods and processes of the actors. Sam has his own style of finding the scene. Andrew has a different style. [I realized] that compared to making a feature film vs a TV series, where the actors are working with different directors, with a feature film, you have your own creative autonomy. But with a TV series, not only is it about your creative vision, but it's also about ultimately managing people, managing them in a way that would create a harmonious environment for all these styles and different methods to go here into one person's vision. For example, Sam’s process tends to start out big, both in performance and in movement. Then with every take, it starts to become more honed in and focused. And by the third take, he completely nails it. But he thrives in having that room and that space to just explore the possibilities of the scene at first. Whereas, Andrew is very precise and meticulous. He's very well researched, so you have to be very prepared to be able to answer his questions intelligently and logically.
Under the Banner of Heaven is currently streaming on Hulu.