I double-checked the email offering to interview David Cronenberg about his kidney stones. Of course there’s no filmmaker with whom I’d more expect to discuss that topic, should we do so at all, and such endeavor clarified itself with the news he’ll release an NFT portrait of his calcium-rich deposits, Kidney Stones and Inner Beauty, on March 29. Not that I have any idea how you acquire it or what you pay for it or what it means once you “own” it.
Cronenberg might not, either. If he’s quick to express slight uncertainty about this new, controversial marketplace’s machinations there is no fear disclosing details on what he calls “a narrative as intimate as a person could imagine”—or a malady that has instilled fear nearly my entire life, as we went into over a back-and-forth I sometimes suspect was hallucinated. And while we make a bit of time for his much-anticipated Crimes of the Future, it seemed best not to press that closely guarded subject. All secrecy will be dispelled soon enough. So we can(nes) guess.
The Film Stage: I have a lot of questions about kidney stones, if that’s something you want to discuss.
David Cronenberg: Oh! Absolutely. I’m dying to talk about that.
I’ve spent nearly my entire life in fear of kidney stones.
Oh. That’s interesting. Why is that? Did you have someone in your family who had them? Why that, of all things to be afraid of?
As a kid I was obsessed with Seinfeld, and I don’t know if you’ve seen the episode where Kramer gets a kidney stone.
I’ve heard of it. I did watch a lot of Seinfeld but I haven’t seen that episode.
I saw it at about eight years old…
…which was the first time I’d heard of kidney stones, where it’s described in this very euphemistic, sitcom way. Kramer’s in constant pain, writhing around, and when he finally passes the stone it’s at a circus; he screams so loud, in such pain, that it makes a trapeze artist fall from the wire. Any time I feel a twinge of pain in my bladder I say to myself, “God. This is it. It’s finally happening.”
Well, I can tell you from personal experience that that’s not where you would feel it. You will not feel it in your bladder. First of all, you will feel it in your back, because that’s where your kidneys are—to either side, up your back. Not the center, but to the side. When a kidney stone was starting to form I could feel it, sort of a dull ache in one of my kidneys on one side or another. Actually, it always turned out to be the left side. But that’s where you’ll first feel it. You won’t ever feel it… there’s lots of room in your bladder. It’s when it starts to go into a small vessel—like your urethra, coming through your penis. That’s where you’re going to feel it. [Laughs] It really hurts.
But I must say I’ve been lucky because I’ve been able to pass all of them. I’ve never had a kidney stone that needed medication or sonar—whatever various things they use to destroy it. So for whatever reason they’ve never gotten stuck there. And as you can see from the photo, one or two of them are quite big. It’s very cathartic, though, when you do pass it; there’s almost a weird pleasure involved. But I also have heard that, yes, the pain… and it would be when it’s in your back, where you would get that agonizing pain that’s unbearable. You’ve probably read that they say it’s even worse than giving birth in terms of possible pain. It’s never gotten me that far; never gone that far with me.
There’s several in the exhibition. With that many, have you grown more accustomed to the pain? Is it just not as galvanizing the seventh or eighth time?
It depends on the size, honestly. That’s really what it’s all about. Because at one point, for example, I could only tell there was a kidney stone coming because the urine spray was a spray rather than a stream, and it meant that there was something in the urethra that was blocking it so the fluid couldn’t come out in a stream. But it was rather diffused and sprayed. I said, “Oh, man. It must be, in a day or two, a kidney stone.” And sure enough there was. [Laughs] But I would say don’t worry about the bladder. I’ve never felt pain there from a kidney stone.
The truth is that I probably haven’t researched too deeply because it scares me so much.
It’s like how you can read accounts of surviving a plane crash.
But I’d rather live in that ignorance.
Well, ignorance is bliss until it’s deadly.
In the statement you frame these stones as a narrative of your body. But did you first save them more in primal fascination? This strange thing coming out of you?
I think it was that. “Primal fascination” is a good way to put it. If you go on the Internet, Googling kidney stones, you will find a million photos of kidney stones. People do that. Now, one of the reasons they do that is medical. My doctor said, “You’ve got to give me that big, 5mm kidney stone because we’ll do a chemical analysis of it. You may have to change your diet, because it’s probably something in your diet that’s causing this accumulation of minerals, calcium, all that.” And I said, “A 5mm one? No way! That’s the crown jewel. That’s beautiful. That’s the biggest one.” So I said no. In the course of analyzing it you destroy it, right? I refused to do that. Until it gets to be a serious problem I’m not going to bother with any medical anything.
One of the reasons, though… I was keeping them in this used pill bottle, but it never occurred to me—the whole NFT Inner Beauty collection thing—until a friend of mine, a very good friend, started to have terrible, terrible pain and ended up in the hospital. And they said it was kidney stones. They didn’t want to mess with them at the time because they could be anywhere and it could be a very difficult, tricky surgery, and it seems like overkill. Anyway, they sent him home with painkillers and all that. And so I was talking to him about my kidney stone experience—this is a friend—and then I said, “Look, I’ll show you.” He hadn’t seen his kidney stones because he hadn’t managed to pass any so I said [Laughs] “I’ll show you mine.” And I thought, “This is beautiful.” Just by accident. I put them out on a beautiful metal table, and that’s where I started to think of it as a work of art.
I’m looking at the photo now. When was it taken?
I’m sure there’s a timedate on it. When I took it was probably within the last few months. But it wasn’t until I was exchanging things with my friend—so that’s only been a couple of months.
There’s a very large one in the center, smaller ones orbiting it. What was your thought about composing with regards to size and shape? Did you want to emphasize anything in particular?
No. It was just their variety, really. As I say, I never rearranged it. It was just a fortuitous thing as I dumped them out from the pill bottle; it just seemed very elegant and well-proportioned and all of that, just by itself. But there’s quite a variety of them. A friend said it reminded her of deep-sea sponges. So it was just really to show them as they are, with as much detail as possible and the variation of them.
This is the second NFT of yours in recent months, after the Death of David Cronenberg short from September.
What about this format appeals to you, uniquely, from other means of exhibition?
Well, I’ve made several short films that were provoked or induced by the venue. A venue. In one case it was the Toronto Film Festival. The Cannes Film Festival did that: they wanted to have, I think, 20 or more directors who’ve been regulars at the festival create a short film, and they could do anything they wanted. In that case the theme was supposed to be cinema, in some way, but it could be any way. So it’s like somebody saying “I want you to write an article about…” and then you, perhaps, write a great article that you would not otherwise have written.
In this case, an NFT, you have a potential platform available to you at any time. I mean it really is kind of thrilling, basically. Any time that you come up with something interesting—however quirky—you have a potential audience. And, you know, I’ve never had an audience of millions and millions. So it’s always a relatively niche audience for me, basically. So to have a really small audience doesn’t bother me. You want an audience, though—even if it’s just two people.
So the NFT thing means that it’s available to you day or night, any time. And that’s pretty thrilling, actually. You don’t need, let’s say, an art gallery to decide to do a hanging or whatever. And then the other aspects about NFTs is that they’re so abstract, so metaphysical, so mysterious. It is like the history of money: money has not always been an accepted thing. It’s gone through… money is, of course, a human invention, and it depends on universal consent to have any meaning. We’re in the same early phases of that, which is: what are you really buying when you buy an NFT? You’re not buying a physical thing. So what are you buying? That just brings up all kinds of great questions about what is money, what is value, what is value in art, etc.
My understanding of it is very limited, very catch-as-catch-can.
I mean, for me it’s: my daughter, Cait, has gotten very heavily into NFTs and done her research. Caitlin is a photographer; she’s done her own NFTs. She knows more about it than I do because I haven’t been quite as obsessive about it. Once she gets into something she really gets into it. So she’s sort of been guiding me, shepherding me, through the process, and really was the first one to suggest to me some video that could be an NFT. Now that that was established, the whole kidney stone thing was not her idea, but in terms of helping me work with SuperRare, she’s been invaluable. So my understanding of the whole NFT world is not 100% complete. That’s for sure.
Do you still have the life-size replica of yourself?
I do not. I had it on loan from the special effects people, who had created it, and they said if I wanted one they could make me another one that I could keep. But I don’t need to do that, actually. There was a time when I had creatures, the Mugwumps, from Naked Lunch in my basement; then I was going to get rid of them but a friend wanted them and he had them tied up behind his couch in his living room for years and years until the rubber sort of disintegrated. [Laughs] But no. It was only on loan. Of course it was partly what inspired me to make that short, because they had created it for Slasher, the TV series.
Where are you with Crimes of the Future? Surely you’re deep into editing?
No, it’s completely finished. As of, literally, yesterday.
Oh, wow. Okay.
Yeah. So it’s completely finished. But in terms of when it will be released is a whole big question of… all kinds of things. We would like to be in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. That’s not certain yet. It’s hopeful but you never know. If it were there, then its first public screening would be in May sometime, because that’s when the festival is. If that happens, that might induce a release shortly after that, which is what happened with Crash: the French distributor released Crash in France the day after the screening in Cannes. But all of that’s up in the air. This is all just supposition. We don’t know.
You’ve said that finishing a film is also occasion to move on. So if I’m talking to you a day after it happens, what is the immediate sensation?
It’s not an immediate sensation because it just takes so long. It’s a long process and you think you’re almost there—but then suddenly you want to make a little change there, but then suddenly some of the visual effects guys notice an imperfection in one of the effects shots and so you redo that. [Laughs] And gradually you crawl your way. Gradually, gradually. So it’s almost like I’m looking over my shoulder. “Oh, yeah. Okay. It’s there. It’s done.” When I say it was finished literally yesterday I mean the DCP was checked yesterday, and that’s why I say it was finished.
Because that was the last point in a long procedure of: yes, you’re editing; yes, you’re doing the sound-mixing; yes, you’re doing the visual effects. But until the distributors in various countries have okayed it—they all have their quality-control people looking at it and saying “these two frames you want to correct”—that’s all happening without me. I don’t need to be involved in that part of it. So the DCP was okayed yesterday, which means “Okay, we’re there.”
If you don’t mind me asking: are you feeling good about it?
Oh, yeah. [Laughs] I really feel good. Very good. That doesn’t mean that I know how it’ll be received; it just means I have great affection for it. I don’t feel frustrations about any things that I feel could have been better, should have been better—any of that. Basically, for me, my mantra always has been: if there’s anything wrong with the film I want it to be my fault. I don’t want it to be because some producer screwed up or some distributor screwed up or I was forced to do something I didn’t want. So I can say: yeah, if you don’t like the movie you can blame me. It’s nobody else’s fault. [Laughs]
Well, isn’t that like a kidney stone? It might be ugly, it might be painful, but it comes from you.
Well, it could be like that. But I think this was a beautiful kidney stone. And it wasn’t that painful; there was a lot of pleasure involved. Of course shooting is on some level stressful because you’re constantly trying to will things to happen, you’re exhausted. We were shooting in Athens. There were forest fires. There was the pandemic. It was 45° centigrade, which is like Death Valley temperatures—like 110. So that was, I wouldn’t say, pain, but it was certainly anxiety—you know, all of those things. But it actually, all things considered, was a very lovely, smooth shoot. It was a lot of terrific people and I love my actors, all of them. So I would say… yeah. And I have no idea, once again. It’s like your kid goes out into the world, has its own life. You are not in control of how it behaves out there and how people react to it.
I’ve been rereading Consumed. Do you have any ambitions to write another novel?
Yeah. I think I could. I mean, it’s not easy to write a novel, either. When I shot Crimes of the Future I was coming back to filmmaking after eight years of not doing it. I was questioning myself. “Oh, will you have the stamina? Will you have the focus? Will you have the endurance?” Because it’s hard, physically. Very hard. And I was eight years older. And for the first three days I sort of thought that I was kind of performing being a director, as opposed to being a director. But then, after that, it just clicked in and my energy was fine. All of that. So it would be the same with writing. Would I have the stamina and focus? And of course you’re spending a lot of time alone, unlike a film, so it’s a question of that too: are you in a place now where you don’t want to spend that much time alone, at this age? It’s an interesting question which all writers face one way or another.
I know you just turned 79.
I’m turning 29 next week. You’re 50 years older than me and I don’t have your energy.
And I have kidney stones and you don’t! So there are advantages to getting older.
You get to create kidney stones. And that’s a good one.
As a final note, do you have any words of encouragement if I get a kidney stone?
You know, I’ll tell you. Of course Russia is very much in the news these days, and one of the axioms of Russian life is: life is suffering. [Laughs] Life is suffering—that’s what it is. And you just have to endure it. You just have to suffer. So have some vodka; maybe vodka might be your solution. I don’t know. But learning to endure suffering is a very good capability to develop, I will tell you.