Dragon Fruit stars Yvonne Chapman as a single mother fighting to care for her son (played by Azriel Dalman) in a brutal dystopian world filled with corruption, greed and violence.
Desperate to make ends meet, Chapman’s character hatches a plan to cultivate the rare eponymous plant in hopes of one day selling it on the black market.
Confronted with a cast of shady dealers, ruthless police and more, she must learn to hunt, steal and even kill if she is ever to buy herself and her son a better future.
While Vancouver-based writer-director J.Brown emphasizes that the story – which is told with almost no dialogue – is open to interpretation, he notes that the film stands as a monument to the daily struggle of modern life.
“It’s about how it feels to be all in on one thing without having a clear plan of what you’re going to do with it,” he says. “No one told me how to become successful in life. Moreover, the old way is dying and we need to find a new project to latch on to, but it’s unclear what that would even be. That’s what the dragon fruit represents: a big payday with a ridiculous plan.”
As J.Brown explains, what started out as a 12-page outline he began working on in 2019 grew into an epic 27-minute short that drew inspiration from everything from the global pandemic to Canada’s annual wildfire season.
“It went from a proof of concept into more of a piece of art that allowed me to really find my voice as a filmmaker and it became this much bigger, more important thing to me,” he says. “Suddenly, it wasn’t just, ‘Here’s this basic sci-fi world,’ it was, ‘This is a piece of commentary on how the last few years have really felt.’”
“I’m not a cosplay guy, but I’d made lots of Halloween costume-type stuff. That was really my entry point.”
Despite very limited production design experience, J.Brown spent more than a year – much of it in lockdown – creating nearly all the props and costumes for the project. He describes the process as “getting a paycheck and going to the dollar store.”
“I’m not a cosplay guy, but I’d made lots of Halloween costume-type stuff. That was really my entry point,” he says. “But I was determined to make this, so I went all in on making props. I even taught myself 3D printing and silicone casting. Making a mask or a costume that someone could wear, that felt good.”
J.Brown credits cinematographer Henry Hayhurst-France for much of Dragon Fruit’s high-budget look. The film was shot on a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera outfitted with vintage lenses, resulting in something the director admits “looked much cooler than I’d ever really envisioned.”
“It was one of the key decisions on the whole project. Lenses these days are so crisp that everything gets this video gamey look. A lot of people like that look, but I’m not a huge fan,” he says. “Shooting on older lenses gave Dragon Fruit a bit of a nineties feel, which I really like. It’s also part of the reason the film punches above its weight as far as production value.”
“There are no excuses. Whatever happens that day, that’s it. You’ve got to get the shot and it has to work.”
The project wasn’t without its challenges, however, and J.Brown says the experience taught him some valuable lessons about keeping things simple, coping under pressure and not biting off more than you can chew.
“There’s a piece of advice from George Lucas where he says that the circumstances you’re in are the circumstances. There are no excuses. Whatever happens that day, that’s it. You’ve got to get the shot and it has to work,” he says. “When you’re showing the film, you can’t stop it for people and say, ‘This part didn’t work the way I wanted.’ It has to work in some fashion. It has to look like it was on purpose.”
Dragon Fruit has already played to audiences at more than a dozen festivals, including recent showings at the Toronto Shorts International Film Festival, as well as Kevin Smith’s Smodcastle Film Festival (where it picked up awards for both best director and best cinematography), and J.Brown says he is looking forward to sharing it with more audiences in 2024.
“Yvonne’s performance is phenomenal. It’s the best thing I’ve ever made and it’s as close as I could have possibly gotten to what I originally pictured,” he says. “After it’s festival run, we’ll hopefully have it online somewhere accessible to as many people as we can.”
In the meantime, he says that he has enjoyed the reactions the film has received and hearing how those who have seen it have connected the dots and interpreted its message.
“Coming out of the pandemic was such a weird thing. We had everything going on in America, we had the pandemic and then all this work-from-home stuff,” J.Brown says. “So, what is everybody’s deal these days? I wonder if this is what the world feels like to other people because this is what it feels like to me.”