Teaming up with more than a dozen students and alumni on two continents, Associate Professor of English Chris Flynn retraces the footsteps of the 18th- and 19th-century Romantics in his quest to create a documentary film.
The barber waved a flaming stick around my ears after cutting my hair. Then the squat, muscled masseur slammed me around on a marble slab to work out my kinks, or maybe his. But when in Turkey without a word of Turkish in your brain, you just go along and hope to survive the local customs long enough to swim across the Hellespont from Europe to Asia.
The seaport of Çanakkale sits between the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean. I was there directing Swimming with Byron, my first feature-length documentary film. The movie follows in the footsteps (and wake) of the more energetic Romantic writers — Byron, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, Wollstonecraft, the younger Coleridge. By the time we got to northwestern Turkey, the crew was down to me and Eric Trimble ’98, MLA ’11, who’d been working as the cinematographer since before we started raising funds to make the film in the spring. We’d recently said goodbye to our first assistant camera operator, Adriana Montenegro ’12, in Rome, and were in Turkey to film our last sequence, my swim, a echo of Byron’s 1810 crossing, itself a much louder echo of the mythical Leander’s nightly back-and-forth across the Hellespont, now called the Dardanelles.
But first I wanted to clean off the months of trekking across Europe, so I went for a haircut. My ears didn’t catch fire, the masseur didn’t break any essential bones, and the next morning I found myself in a Speedo on a narrow beach with 500 Turks and nine fellow foreigners ready to wade into some of the strongest currents in the world for the yearly Hellespont swim.
A new friend from orientation events stood next to me. “I’m a grown man capable of adult decisions,” he said. “Why am I here?”
I knew what he meant. That was a lot of water we were looking across. But for him, this was one of many swims. I’d decided to do this particular event 11 years earlier and had finally made it to the starting line. What was a vast, watery, continental dividing line in the face of more than a decade of expectation?
I came to St. Edward’s as a professor of British Romantic literature in 2004. Part of my application outlined a plan to write a book of essays where I climbed the mountains Wordsworth had climbed, walked the beaches where Coleridge had invented his ancient mariner, skirted the glaciers Mary Shelley had sought out for Frankenstein’s monster and swam Byron’s Hellespont. One of the English professors who’d hired me consistently reminded me of that project, and the fact that I hadn’t done it yet.
“When are you going to swim the Hellespont?” Brother George Klawitter, CSC, would ask you. “Will it be in the geriatric division when you get around to it? Will the rest of us still be alive for it?”
So I had to do the swim, not just for myself, but for St. Edward’s, and for Brother George, who often reminded me the only reason they’d hired me was my promise that I’d do it.
The summer before I began teaching on the hilltop, I hiked the Alps around Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in Europe. It was the embodiment of the sublime for the writers I studied and taught, particularly William Wordsworth, and Mary and Percy Shelley. I went there to hike the Tour du Mont Blanc, a two-week circuit around the mountain that went through France, Italy and Switzerland. The hike is filled with the scenery of Wordsworth’s great epic poem “The Prelude,” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Percy Shelley’s poem “Mont Blanc,” and many other great texts from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I wanted to breathe them in, to see what all these writers I’d focused on for several years were talking about. I wrote and published my first essay about the places of Romanticism after I got home from that trip.
More trips and essays followed. Then I started teaching French cinema at the university’s campus in Angers, France, and assigned my students the insane, over-our-heads task of making a feature-length documentary about their semester abroad. I made myself the director to oversee the project. None of us had ever made a film before.
As we worked on it, I became obsessed. By the time we finished, I knew I wanted to make more movies. I had no money, no crew and no formal training, but the students and I had put together a fun document of that semester, New Eyes/d’autres yeux, which we showed at St. Edward’s to an enthusiastic audience the following fall, and I started looking out for my next project.
Soon, I realized I already had it, and that the book of essays that had been slowly emerging was location scouting for a film. I asked Eric, who works in the Faculty Resource Center on campus, if he’d join me. Then I asked Kate Rosati ’06, MBA ’12, if she’d help us raise the money to shoot in Europe. They both said yes, so the film had a director, cinematographer and producer. We managed to raise $12,500 with a Kickstarter campaign and headed over to England in late May 2015 to begin filming.
We stood on the Jubilee Walkway across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament in London: me, six students from St. Edward’s, and eight acting students from London whom I’d recruited with the help of a friend, a theater professor at the University of Surrey. The wind was picking up, and we had maybe 90 minutes of sunshine early on a Monday morning. I realized I’d forgotten the wind cover for the microphone, and this was the only day we had to film the actors reciting Wordsworth’s “Composed upon Westminster Bridge” sonnet on the site where it had been conceived more than 200 years earlier.
The one actor who hadn’t shown up yet kept phoning me. I hadn’t met any of them before, and had given them directions to where we’d be by email. It was impossible to miss, or so I thought. She kept ending up on the wrong side of the river, or the wrong part of the Jubilee Walkway, so I kept pushing her down the list of reciters until she was last.
I was in London with 13 first-year students for a two-week trip following a semester where I had taught them literature that touched on mental health, and several students had volunteered to serve as crew on the film. As Victoria Cavazos ’18 and Sara Radebaugh ’18 MacGyvered a wind cover for the microphone — Victoria’s sweater — Jason Morris ’18 and Dylan Ramos ’18 worked on framing the shot, and Daniel Sullivan ’18 helped coordinate the actors. Meanwhile, I repeatedly talked the actor closer to where she needed to be.
She made it, we got all of our volunteers on film before the light went bad, telling the future audience that “Earth has not anything to show more fair” than the sight of London from that spot, and film production was underway.
For two weeks, I shot all over London with the help of various groups of students. I paid them in fish and chips in various London pubs, and the footage accumulated: John Keats’ house in Hampstead, Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave in a small churchyard behind King’s Cross Station, the Serpentine in Hyde Park where Percy Shelley’s first wife drowned herself.
Then the students flew home. Eric arrived, and we drove west to the Somerset Coast, to Tintern Abbey, then north to the Lake District. I interviewed a charming little man named Toby Bryant, one of the people who run the Watchet Market House Museum in a little harbor town where Wordsworth and Coleridge used to walk along the sea, and where Coleridge came up with the idea for “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798).
Toby talked about a statue of the mariner the museum had commissioned a few years earlier. The bronzed mariner was very buff and battered, draped with the albatross he’d killed with his crossbow. Then we had a pint in the inn where the poets had been accustomed to taking liquid refreshment back in the last decade of the 18th century. I talked to two writers from Manchester who’d compiled a book, Walking the Literary Landscape, about the treks Wordsworth and other writers would make in the Lake District and other spots around northern England. I rowed Eric around on Ullswater, a lake where a young Wordsworth had stolen a boat as a child, as he filmed me talking about it.
When the sky cleared, I had a perfect view of the Matterhorn. It was the day we were to hike the Simplon Pass, Europe’s continental divide. Eric had had to fly back to Austin for a few weeks while I continued filming, and we had plans to meet up again to film a hike up to the pass. Eric was supposed to pick up Adriana, who’d be helping with the camera work, in Milan, and the two would drive a rental car to Visperterminen, a small ski village in the Swiss Alps. I’d hiked there across the Alps and planned to meet them today in a cabin on the side of the mountain.
When I'd arrived in Visperterminen, I’d realized immediately that I wouldn’t be able to contact them. The cabin had electricity, but no Wi-Fi, no phone, no connection to the outside world. My cell phone didn’t work in Switzerland, even though the person who’d sold me a European SIM card in France had promised me that it would work in all six of the countries I told her we’d be visiting. I could only hope the directions I'd given Eric and Adriana when we all had Internet service would suffice.
Hours went by. I walked down the mountain to the few small buildings in Visperterminen, a small ski village. I waited in a hotel restaurant there as it grew darker, but still they didn’t show. I knew I had about a half-hour walk up the mountain to the cabin, and waited as long as I could so I wouldn’t be on the tiny road after dark.
I didn’t sleep much that night. I could only hope Eric and Adriana were all right. I’d expected them no later than 4 p.m. the afternoon before, and by sunrise there was still no sign of them. I climbed down the mountain again, and there, in front of the hotel where I’d waited for them the evening before, they climbed out of the rental car where they’d ended up spending the night after giving up on finding the cabin in the dark. They’d been lost on the roads around Milan. It had taken until well past dark just to find their way out of Milan and across the border from Italy to Switzerland, and they'd driven for hours with no wireless access or GPS signal.
I let myself breathe, thankful they were safe, then quickly turned back into a low-budget film director filming in six countries in one summer. That was the day we had to hike the Simplon Pass, even if Eric had just flown over from Texas, driven through the Alps, and spent the night in a car.
From Switzerland it was a race: Venice, then the Ligurian coast on the other side of northern Italy, where Byron swam and Shelley drowned, then down to Rome, where Keats died of consumption at the age of 25 and my friend Tatiana fed our little Texan film crew delicious dinners on the roof garden of her apartment every night.
The film was almost in the can, as they used to say, or in the external hard drives, as no one says. We had more than 30 hours of footage and audio from the summer’s work. Now, there was just a day in Istanbul and two days in Çanakkale before I could finally swim with Byron.
There would be a lot more to do once we got back to Austin. Search for backers to finish the film. (We were broke.) Shape the narrative. Edit all the footage. Engineer the sound, and so much more. But before that, with my fresh haircut and relaxed muscles, I was going to enjoy swimming to Asia.
I thought I’d be plowing through oil and muck, since the waterway from the Aegean through the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea is one of the most trafficked in the world. We’d seen a constant flow of freighters in the days before the swim. They only stop them on Aug. 30 every year, Turkish Independence Day, and then only for an hour and a half, so Leander’s swim can be recreated.
But the water was remarkably clear. Jellyfish bobbed below me as I got into the deeper water. I struck out, aiming toward a radio tower on the opposite shore, as we’d been coached, then downstream toward Çanakkale once I’d gotten halfway across the heavy current. In less than five minutes it was like I was alone in the water. We all were swimming our own routes. When I looked to my left, I could see a few fishing boats. To my right it was mostly water and the horizon.
I stumbled up on shore in an hour and 10 minutes, Byron’s time exactly. I have no idea how I hit that so perfectly. Eric was there to film me coming out of the water, then a close-up of my watch with the perfect display, as if we’d planned it all.
By Chris Flynn
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