Peasants by Jeremy LoCurto
That morning we were hanging the peasants in the trees by the edge of the lake. Every time we hung them the peasant women would come rushing toward the barricade wailing. We grabbed and tossed them to the screaming crowds, then returned to our posts to guard the bodies dangling in the dead trees.
On the first day there had been a mix up and they wanted me to be a peasant. But I told them I’d been fitted as an evil knight in the King’s army, so they finally handed over my costume and I undressed in a corner of the dirty white tent with all the women in line for their costumes watching. I had to hold onto the railing of a costume rack to pull on my tights. I enjoyed wearing the black velvet jacket of a killer with its ruffles and oversized buttons.
We’d been filming in the mountains of Wicklow for a week. It was more than an hour outside of Dublin and the last twenty minutes of the journey it was all winding gravel roads, dense green forests and rolling hills sprinkled with muscled grey boulders. The production camp was set up in a clearing encircled by mossy yew forests. There was a steely blue lake, its banks covered in swaying reeds and slender white swans that I sometimes walked beside on my lunch break.
After all the time we spent riding the buses back and forth on the rickety dirt roads from Dublin I got to know a few of the other knights, and some of the peasants too. There was one ginger guy I knew with a long beard, about six foot seven who was born to play the role of the peasant. His red hair was the texture of a horse’s tail and dangled onto his shoulders, pinched at the tips by pieces of string that tied his flaming locks together. From his canvas trousers to his muddy smock, to the medieval hoe he carried as a makeshift weapon to brandish in the rebellion scenes, the accoutrements of peasantry seemed tailored to him to the point that it was unnatural to imagine him in modern clothing. It was hard to assess what role he might play in a film set in a non-agricultural society, or one that took place after the 19th century. In his future in the film industry, I could only envisage a dreary life spent bouncing from one peasant role to the next – as the Tudor peasant, the Russian serf, as a barbarian or a cave dweller, as a Moravian warlord.
Every morning as I was pulling on my polished leather boots and being given a heroic glow by the makeup people I watched the peasants getting ready. The makeup artists covered their faces with dirt and applied artificial grime to their fingernails. They put them in oversized, badly fitting smocks. Afterwards most of the peasants would wander around the tents in confusion, apparently not knowing where to go. They loitered beside the morning buffet filling their pockets with pilfered fruit and asking when the free lunch would be served. The second these people were in peasant garments even the production assistants treated them with less respect. I wondered how it would feel to be typecast as a peasant. “Yeah,” the casting director would say “he’s got a real peasant look to him. Looks like a real peasant. Got a big peasanty face –”
After a week dressed as a knight you started to look down on the slothful peasantry. They had a special look to them, like they were a race apart – the result of centuries of breeding, like greyhounds or Arabic racehorses. Every day in the lunch hour they lounged in the fields in their loose fitting sack-for-clothes outfits, their long legs stretched out, yawning in the sun, running around in the grass tackling one another down, smoking cigarettes, stealing bread from the caterers baskets and walking barefoot through the camp like gypsies. You almost expected them to put their caps on the floor and beg. They were always asking the production staff for autographs from the big stars to give to some cousin or brother-in-law in the country. I could smell vodka on some of them whenever they came close enough to breathe on me. They were so damn sloppy and lazy, you just wanted to beat them, rob them and toss them into the lake to drown. Sometimes you looked at a plain-faced peasant woman with a good body and the evil thought of raping the wench would cross your mind and haunt you all day until everyone was back in normal clothes and heading back to the city on the buses again and you’d taken off the velvet vests and remembered you weren’t in the King’s army.
Unlike the peasants, the knights weren’t allowed to lounge in the fields because it took too long for us to take off our armor and put it back on again. The only way for us to be comfortable was to sit in upright chairs. After getting our gourmet lunch from the caterers, the knights always sat together – a crowd of evil looking bastards in our black velvet trousers, battered blood flecked silver armor and helmets, and cruel looking boots, sitting around the white plastic tables in stiff plastic chairs, like the knights of the fucking round table. There was only one knight who didn’t sit with us. He kept a ziplock plastic bag stowed away in his breastplate and in between scenes he’d take it out and remove its contents: a beat up copy of Brave New World, a moleskine and a pencil – one of those short pencils without erasers. When a scene finished he’d walk to the edge of the forest, sit on a moss-covered boulder and read his book and write. He was a novelist and screenwriter and claimed he was writing the greatest story ever told. Though pompous, he was respected by many of the knights because a lot of them were aspiring screenwriters and actors themselves. The major problem with the novelist was that he kept his pompous dreams all to himself – he refused to partake in the communal dream of success that the professional extras discussed feverishly between takes. He did not want to take part in the non-stop retellings of vanished dream auditions, of brief brushes with celebrity producers, of chances lost and won, of connections squandered and regained, which the others reveled in. No, he did not allow his dreams to be added to the greater dream, like another pail of water scooped from the bottom of a boat and thrown into the ocean. He did not discuss his failures and allow these to reinforce the atmosphere of accepted failure; he did not want to join the milieu of actor-knights who lived for the discourse of pursuing an acting dream. He kept his hopes and dreams separate from theirs, and that was why the actor-knights despised him when they saw him walking off to pen another scene in the greatest novel ever written.
That morning we weren’t able to finish the hanging scenes before lunch and the director cursed at us all before sending us off to eat. It was a hot day so we broke the rules and took off our breastplates while we ate. We sat on our helmets and were laughing and looking across the fields to the trailers where the celebrities had their dressing rooms. The production assistant came to us after only half an hour and told us the director wanted to film again.
‘Not till we finished eating!’ one of the knights called out.
‘Yeah! Yeah!’ everyone mumbled.
The knight who’d spoken was one of the few ‘ordinary guys’ on set who had no ambition to ever become an actor. One morning I’d sat next to him on the dawn bus ride to Wicklow. He was a talker, who didn’t shut his damn mouth once the whole journey. He filled the silent, sleep-filled bus with a stream of banal observations, bantering on and on about how his girlfriend made him audition, and the sports and traditions of the town of a his birth – some fucking village in the middle of Cork, renowned for producing celtic athletes and where there was a yearly celebration centered on goats.
‘Lads,’ the production assistant said smugly, ‘just get up and go – don’t make me get the big guy.’
‘You get your fockin boss!’
‘Yeah!’ the Knights cheered.
A few minutes later the director appeared.
‘Get off your fucking asses and put your goddamn armor on! Do you bastards even want to be in this scene at all? You are background, that’s all you fucking are, and I could get a whole new group of background in to replace you motherfuckers anytime. Now get up and go – you’re holding this scene up!’
‘He’s full of shit,’ Federico explained to me as we sauntered back to the trees to finish hanging the peasants, ‘he needs us for the continuity of the scene.’
‘Action!’ the director yelled. I knocked the block out from beneath my peasant’s feet. Then the screaming peasant women broke through and I seized them by the waists and threw them into the mud, or behind the wall of guards in dressed in black velvet and armor. There was one peasant woman who screamed in a throaty gargle, wept real tears, fell to the ground clutching handfuls of dirt and stayed in character between shots. She was, apparently, trying to ‘get noticed.’
We did this scene about five or six times and the director was unhappy with the every single take. After a particularly bad one, he strode towards us and ripped the oversized headphones off his head.
‘Listen you guys,’ he said, ‘Not sure if you noticed this, but you’re out here on a job. You’re here to work.’ He paused and considered the best way to inspire us. ‘I don’t see you putting in the energy out there,’ he began again, ‘It’s like builders, you know? Builders are hired to work, to lay stones and build houses. They are paid to do their jobs. To make something greater than themselves. You are paid to do your jobs too. If a builder fucks up, they get fired – you understand? Just do the fucking job right lads.’
The director’s words failed to resonate with the knights.
They were, after all, mostly aspiring actors. These were guys who were in pursuit of a dream to have their talent noticed and to make it big. They weren’t about to identify with builders building brick walls and house frames. They weren’t out there to do a job – they were in the green hills of Wicklow to be discovered, they were here hunting a dream. Although I thought it was the most unimaginative dreams it was possible to have, at least I understood it. I thought it was a dream about as original as wishing to be an astronaut or the president of the United States. It was pre-dreamed; it was the dream you had when you didn’t really have a dream. It was the sweatpants of dreams, a dream to fit all, something that anyone could slip into without challenging their self. And really, how many dreams and dreamers were like this?
After his speech, we tried a few more times and when he got an acceptable shot we moved on to the next scene, one of the most important of the week. We marched towards the plain across hills overgrown with weeds and wild flowers, and strewn with grey boulders. There were smooth grassy mountains behind us, and pale bloated clouds drifting above. As they set up the scene we lined up beside a brown stream dribbling down a pebbled creek bed.
Two kings were going to meet on the wooden bridge that rose above the field to negotiate the terms of battle. However, they were both played by big name actors who wouldn’t rehearse while the cameramen set up their gear, so they plucked two knights from the bunch to stand in their places. They chose the novelist and the ordinary guy. From where we stood we could see them on the bridge where the famous actors would stand, the apparatus of cameras swirling around them like orbiting planets in a mechanical display of the cosmos.
‘Do you think he’ll get a line?’ Federico whispered to one of the other knights.
‘It’s possible, anything is possible. I almost got a line once.’
‘Will who get a line? Not the blond guy…he’s not even an actor.’
‘That guy, no way. Come on…that guy? You know one time I caught him listening to his headphones while we were shooting? Two white iPod headphones dangling into his ears. Can you imagine if the cameras caught that? An iPod in fucking medieval times.’
‘Haha. That’s like the classic movie with Charlton Heston – ’
‘Exactly, I was gonna say – just like Ben Hur where there’s that scene with the Roman guy who has the gold wristwatch.’
‘They let that fly back then…’
‘I bet it was easy back then, to get a line, you know?’ Federico said. He was an Italian who’d spent five years in Hollywood trying to shop around a script he’d written. Once he saw George Clooney eating a croissant at a carwash and he approached him with a copy of the script he kept under the seat in his car. He was happy because he knew Clooney loved Italy and had a home in Como. ‘He took the script, he took it,’ Federico told us with pride, ‘and he shook my hand. And when he reads it, he will call tomorrow,’ he said, brandishing the phone Clooney would call.
‘You think the writer will get a line?’
The knights all had their eyes fixated on the novelist and the non-actor standing in front of the cameras. They were watching with envy – watching these two lucky guys break ahead of the pack. Watching them getting noticed. They’d been flung a golden opportunity, hurled the rare chance, and they all watched as these two undeserving bastards got closer to fame.
‘What time is it?’ one of the guys remembered.
‘Two hours to go till overtime.’ If we were there for over ten hours a day, we got paid double for every hour.
Finally the lead actor appeared on the set in a full suit of chain mail, a shining sword at his side and a heavy shield in his arm. He was our King. He sauntered to the gravel bridge where the novelist and the non-actor were standing and patted them on the back and thanked them both for standing in. I could see that the sight of the King’s feathery fingers moving across the novelist’s shoulders was like a black hand gripping Federico’s heart and making him die a little. Perhaps he felt himself diminish and lessen by witnessing the success of another.
The novelist and the non-actor trotted back to the phalanx of soldiers with a sprightly jog. ‘He’s a real nice guy, the king. Taller than you’d expect. We were talking.’ The non-actor put his headphones and picked up a bow and arrow and stood stoically, like a man on a crowded train who didn’t want to be disturbed by the other passengers. He wanted to bathe in this moment so the details soaked into his brain and were preserved. He would report this event to his girlfriend, and use it as material for conversations with strangers. The novelist was beaming and all the other actor-knights could hardly conceal their admiration for him. When the scene was over he crept off to the edge of the lake and slipped the plastic bag out of his breastplate and began writing a new scene in the novel. But he didn’t have long to pen new greatnesses because filming wrapped immediately, and we had to march back to the white tents to get changed, and wait for the buses. The knights were quiet because we’d missed overtime by a matter of minutes, but nobody wanted to admit that this was the reason for their gloom. We were above money.
I opened the door of our little studio apartment and my girlfriend was in bed in her pajamas reading a book.
‘Joseph! How was it?’
‘Not good, not bad.’ And I told her about all the people I’d seen.
‘Did you learn anything new?’
‘Yeah, I learned I’m glad I’m not a fucking actor. It’s the worst dream there is. I’m happy its not my dream because I can watch them and not feel any passion about it. I’m not trying to compete with them, not trying to be a better actor. But its sickening to watch them get jealous of each other, and suck up to the stars. Some of them are so fucking phony. And it feels like you are just wasting your time when you are with them.’
‘You shouldn’t be so harsh on them. They are people. You should try to understand them. You’d be better if you could feel empathy for them.’
‘Empathize? I’ve got to empathize. Like Jesus? You know, Jesus was the great empathizer.’ She did not laugh. ‘I know, I know. I’ll try to be better.’ I said.
‘Good. Try to be nicer. Oh, this letter came for you…is it the one you’ve been waiting for?’
There was an envelope on the table, it was the color of dried leaves. My name was typed on the front in dark smudged ink. I’d been waiting for this letter for over three months. I ripped it open and read it and told her what it said. It was good news, I explained, better news that I’d ever expected it would contain.
We decided to celebrate. We drank two bottles of Prosecco that I’d bought from our local liquor store, a musty shop with a redbrick façade and dark creaky floor boards. They stocked obscure Belgian beers, and a vast wine section divided not only by country, but by region as well. We were very popular there with the shop assistants because the majority of their clientele were local drunks who would drink anything, whereas we liked to ask them questions about the wines and talk about the virtues of different varieties of beer.
The next day I was up at dawn and waiting at the supermarket parking lot where the bus came to pick us up every morning. One of the peasants was there, a short crafty looking guy smoking a cigarette against a wall with buggy cocaine eyes darting around the place like he probably hadn’t slept at all the night before. The thought “a typical member of that peasant crowd” flashed through my head.
The supermarket café was a favorite hotspot for all the bums in our neighborhood. They loved to sit in the plastic chairs outside, looking at you confrontationally when you came to do your shopping. There was a man with a thick blond mustache who wore flower print dresses and a beat up little hat with a flower in it like a hat a tramp would wear in a cartoon. He had thick eyebrows that grew in patches across his brow, like algae, which he would raise in disgust as people entered the shop. And there were two women, twins, with caved-in broken alcoholic faces and eroded teeth and jaws who yelled insanely at one another and then sat silently like nothing happened until their next outburst. The patriarch of this scene was a proud old homeless man with a long white beard stained yellow like a wizard. He was drinking a can of beer and gazing at the sunrise with cloudy faraway eyes and an expression that you might mistake for wisdom if you were hopeful and naïve and you didn’t know any better.
One by one the extras turned up in their raggedy jeans and old t-shirts. Nobody talked, nobody grinned. They stood there, wrapped up thick in their warped sense of themselves and I could tell just by looking at this bunch that they were all fucking worthless. I didn’t want to waste another day observing their bitter heartbreaks and the drama of false camaraderie as they negotiated the terms of a dream that was not my dream. I had a lot of other stuff going on and when the bus pulled up I didn’t get on it. I was hungry, and I headed towards a good café I knew in the area. I would eat a big breakfast and drink coffee and spend my money and read one of the books I had in my bag.
There was purple fog curled around the street lamps, like vines made of steam. The puddles on the cobblestones were growing pink and violet and orange with the rising sun. I was giddy inside. I’d inherited a fresh day – a day that I’d already struck off the record as spent and wasted. The streets were quiet and empty and I was alone. On days like that it felt like the city was all yours, like the world was all yours, and that you could live forever in it if you could only capture it the way it was.