“Unconditional” is a feature-length film written & directed by Braden Barton and produced by Davide Tomei and Molly Esling.
Adam and Evelyn Ward are celebrating fifteen years of marriage when Evelyn turns up dead, leaving Adam and their 16-year-old daughter, Mary, emotionally lost. Mary’s resentment paired with Adam’s desperate need for justification leads them on the search for answers, but as Adam delves deeper into the mystery surrounding his wife’s death, he starts to unravel after uncovering her dual-life style of sex, hard drugs, and underground clubs. On this destructive journey, they are forced to question what in life is truly worth fighting for, hopefully before it’s too late.
We had an opportunity to speak with Braden and Davide about their new film “Unconditional.” Check out the interview below.
Braden, what inspired the film?
There are two sides to the spectrum when it comes to where my inspirations originated when creating this film: What inspired the story, and what inspired me?
First, what inspired the story? Well, there are many different elements of our culture that I set out to analyze and critique when I wrote ‘Unconditional,” but one of the themes I focused on the most was the idea of “Love” vs. “Lust.” What does it mean to truly “love” someone, and how is that different than to “lust” for someone? Can someone lust, one person, while they love another? Are these two concepts mutually exclusive or is there a middle ground? It is my honest belief that most people in our society view these ideas as black and white, but I wanted to focus solely on the gray.
I set out to make a film that was brutally relatable, all the while being analytical of these societal views that are so ingrained in our culture. I’m not trying to tell people that anyone way is right or wrong, I am just trying to engage in a conversation with our audience that will hopefully result in them walking away with a new perspective to consider. They can then decide for themselves how they feel.
Knowing that I was going to be focusing on such a taboo topic, I knew I would need to create characters and a story that an audience would relate to, so that’s what I set out to do. If the audience doesn’t connect, we risk losing them halfway through the film. In a movie of such emotional instability, the audience needs to be fully invested to want to keep watching. To help aid in this task, I started by focusing on the breaking points of our two main characters, Adam and Mary, and then I worked backwards. I would ask myself, “what exactly would it take to make a person break like this in real life?” Not some fictional character, not some exaggerated persona, but how would any normal person get to a mental and emotional breaking point of this severity? What would it take to get me to this point? Based on this mentality, piece by piece I worked backwards until I felt like anyone watching would be able to relate to, and almost justify, the actions that the characters choose to take, hopefully resulting in a more emotionally compelling story.
Next, what inspired me? It’s unfortunate I have to say this, but one of the most inspiring things I came across when approaching this project was the opposition. Never in my life have I had so many people tell me that I shouldn’t do something, that I couldn’t do it, and that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. Once we got into production, we even had people actively going out of their way to try and slow us down or to stop us altogether. The worst part about it was these were our peers and professors, the very people that were supposed to be encouraging us to challenge ourselves and to be constantly ambitious. This has been and continues to be a huge problem at our college, and its impact on me is something I will never forget. Nothing stokes the fire that is my passion for filmmaking more than being told I can’t do something, or that I’ll never be able to pull something off.
The characters are so real. Did you base them on anyone or a situation?
B: Sort of. Unfortunately, I know more people than I am happy to admit that have had their family plagued by divorce, cheating, or sometimes something worse. These characters are based on all of these people and the very real emotions and experiences they’ve shared with me. That is one way that I sought to make this film relatable. Although my specific story with the clubs and drugs and overdose is rather exaggerated (not unheard of), the feelings derived from betrayal are all the same. I took what I had learned from these different types of betrayals and applied it to my story. I then amplified the normal emotions one might feel to better fit my more exaggerated scenarios in which I subjected my characters (and actors) to situations that are borderline unheard of.
In short, unfortunately, these characters are based on the many real people that have been impacted by betrayal.
D: I’m sure Braden can adequately answer this more than I can, but it was interesting to see how relatable a story this was as we pressed forward. Whether it was from the managers at the locations we shot on, the cast or the crew, this story struck chords with people. I think that’s a testament to the characters Braden’s created and the arc that he’s placed them in.
What inspired you to produce the film?
D: First, I did not produce this all on my own. I have a lovely producing partner named Molly Esling who was on board before I was approached by Braden. If my memory serves me right, I was one of the last of the “above the line” crew to come onto the project. I hadn’t thought about this until this weekend at our North Hollywood screening, but Braden and I honestly didn’t know each other all too well when this was getting off the ground.
Braden pitched me on the project way back in October 2015, and little did he know I was looking for a big challenge at the time. I said “yes” about 30 seconds in (before he could change his mind!). Braden told me the story and how he wanted to do something audacious and borderline impossible to accomplish as full-time students. Anyone who knows me will tell you that’s all the inspiration I need.
Regarding the story specifically, I was reading the script as an audience member – in one sitting, no less. It was a story I wanted to see on the big screen. It was beautifully written. Painful at times – hollow and heart-wrenching – but very cinematic in its emotional scope and vision. That’s what inspired me to take it on, and I certainly hope that’s what audiences take away when they see this film.
This is a heartfelt production. We are sure many emotions were experienced. After viewing the final production. What has been your biggest takeaway?
B: I have to say my biggest takeaway from this experience was the unforgettable relationships you forge with others when working on projects of this length and nature.
My relationship with the overall crew was one that had a significant impact on me. They were some of the most hardworking and dedicated individuals I have ever had the pleasure to work alongside. As a crew member, when working on a film that is so dark in mood and tone it’s not always the easiest thing to be “excited” to come to work and be surrounded by all of those types of emotions. Despite how challenging it might have been, the crew did exactly that, coming to work every day with smiles on their faces, eager to get the job done.
And then there were the relationships between myself and the actors, something that will forever continue to encourage my passions and pursuit of becoming a full-time Director. I have had the pleasure of working with many actors prior to this project, but never to such an emotional extent. The script and the story were very demanding of these individuals because it put their characters through such a rollercoaster of emotions, so everyday was a challenge for us all. There was one scene, in particular, that when filming I had one of those existential moments, reaffirming that this is what I want to do the rest of my life. To avoid any spoilers, all I will say is it happened during the filming of the phone call scene. Seeing these actors so emotionally invested in these fictional characters that I created was both amazing yet absolutely heartbreaking. It was an extremely emotional day for us all, to say the least, and afterward, I walked away knowing that directing is what I want to do the rest of my life.
D: That’s an interesting question. Personally, I try to leave the takeaways to audiences and let them decide what they think. But, I would say my biggest takeaway is that I was extremely proud of everyone’s work on the film. Since I’ve been involved from the start, it’s been rewarding to see this come together like a string of pearls. Watching audience members jump out of their seats when they hear a sound effect or feeling that tension in the theater escalate is incredibly rewarding. Seeing all of that hard work then reflected in the audience’s emotional response is my biggest takeaway for sure.
“Unconditional” is about the human condition and love. Do you believe the heart can forgive anything?
B: Not necessarily. Based on my personal interpretation of this movie, and what I’ve heard from many other people, how could you forgive someone after such betrayal? Could you even?
I think these are questions in which many people will have mixed feelings about, but that’s the point. With this story, we are asking our viewers to have a conversation with themselves internally, and it’s one that we know there is no ‘correct’ answer to. All we hope is that people are receptive to having this conversation in the first place because it can be an uncomfortable conversation to have.
As I said before, all-encompassing “love” is often viewed strictly in black and white in our culture, while I believe there is a whole lot of gray that is ignored. This story is less about forgiveness and more about the boundaries of love, and to what extent those boundaries can be pushed. I personally don’t believe the heart can forgive ‘anything,’ because forgiveness can only be so flexible. That being said, can you still love someone that you aren’t willing to forgive? Does their love for you still play a role in your life after such a betrayal? These are the questions we want people asking themselves after watching “Unconditional.”
D: Adam’s thirst for justification in this film leads him down a dark, desperate path to learn the truth. I think hearts are certainly capable of forgiveness – it would be a much more sad world if the opposite were true – but the film asks audiences to question what they would do if they were in Adam or Mary’s shoes, and had to go through this. How would you feel to learn that the person you loved, had a child with, and shared your life with for more than fifteen years hid an entirely alternate lifestyle that you knew nothing about? At what point do you justify and forgive that? Can you?
The cinematography is amazing. Tell us about your approach.
B: Thank you so much! It’s wonderful to hear so many people have been receptive to the style of cinematography I decided upon for this film.
Overall, the decisions made were influenced by both creative direction as well as restriction.
As I’ve said, I wanted this story to be brutally relatable so that the audience would feel compelled enough to join Adam and Mary as they journeyed down the rabbit hole. To aid in keeping things relatable, I focused on the idea of naturalism when I approached the lighting and camera movement. The last thing that I would want is for someone to be drawn out of an emotional moment or a plot-driven scene because they noticed ‘a really cool shot.’
So for camera movement, I focused mostly on keeping it documentary-esque, with a lot of handheld and subtle dolly movements. Nothing too in the face or distracting. As far as lighting goes, the phrase I would constantly throw at my amazing gaffer, Tanner Johnson, was that I wanted to light it “naturalistically-stylistic.” What I meant by this was I wanted the lighting to feel completely natural to the environments we were shooting in, but in pivotal moments or emotionally dark scenes, I wanted to exaggerate that lighting to place emphasis on certain parts of the story. We took that concept and ran with it, and I believe it resulted in a style of cinematography that complemented the story perfectly.
Although this was the style we lived by for most of the movie, as the story progressed we started to break our own rules quite often, because what good are rules if they aren’t meant to be broken! As the plot unfolds, there is a stark contrast in how warm and friendly everything feels at first to how dark and aggressive everything feels towards the end. As people were feeling this contrast develop I wanted them to see this contrast develop as well. Like before, we took our “natural” lighting approach and continued to push it further and further until high-stress moments became rather stylized, especially towards the end as you will see.
From a technical standpoint, at the beginning of the film, we shot mostly on the 50mm and the 85mm, never going wider than a 35mm. We did this to keep everything feeling close and intimate before the big reveal. After the reveal, the lens I lived on almost exclusively for the rest of the movie was the beautiful Zeiss 28mm, especially for close-ups. The 28mm showed a lot more of the beautiful set design which was key for subtle storytelling, as well as it made close-ups feel slightly discomforting. This is because the 28mm is just wide enough to show more than what people are used to in the frame, but not too wide where distortion would come into play.
D: This is of course up Braden’s alley, but he had some truly incredible crewmembers working underneath him to bring his vision to life. Braden is extremely specific and knows exactly what he wants to convey. There are shots composed in the film that you could clearly envision in the script. With the time and budget constraints, we were under, what Braden and his camera/lighting crew captured was nothing short of impressive.
Thank you for chatting with us about the film. Is there anything else you would like to add that we didn’t cover?
D: The film is currently being submitted to festivals and is seeking distribution.
We’re very grateful to Occhi for sharing our story, and we would encourage anyone reading this to follow our film at the following social media outlets and websites:
Connect with Unconditional:
Official Trailer: https://vimeo.com/169329748
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/Unconthesis/