In defence of retold stories, borrowed styles and ‘NPR Voice’

It was November of last year and I was preparing to upload my documentary short Copycat to Vimeo — finally surrendering the film to the unknowable playground of the web, where it would become whatever people made of it— when I read a New York Times article that gave me pause.

The piece, by author Teddy Wayne, was titled ‘NPR Voice’ Has Taken Over The Airwaves and it argued that a style of storytelling popularised by the US radio network NPR had come to dominate contemporary broadcasting. By way of an example, Wayne wrote the following:

‘If I could attempt to transcribe it, it sounds kind of like, y’know … this.’

My mind shot back to the first line of Copycat, in which I — as the film’s narrator — introduce the hero of the piece:

“So, I spent yesterday with a guy called Rolfe Kanefsky … who is, without a doubt, the biggest horror fan I’ve ever met.”

I cringed. On some level, I’d known this was coming. Ever since Copycat first premiered, at the 2015 True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri, I’d been plagued by the inescapable feeling that I was getting away with something.

At every screening I attended, from Missouri to Edinburgh to my home city of London, someone in the audience would take it upon themselves to approach me afterwards and congratulate me on my ‘unusual’ approach to documentary storytelling. “I loved the way the narration intertwined with the interview”, they’d say, “it was so conversational.”

I wondered why no one had pointed out the obvious: that I owed a considerable debt of gratitude to an entire generation of American radio producers. After all, the shows most closely associated with NPR Voice — This American Life, Radiolab, 99% Invisible—are far from niche: they’re among the most renowned media brands in the world, with a collective reach in the millions. So why didn’t Copycat strike people as derivative?

Here’s my theory. Something strange happens when you take the hallmarks of one medium and transplant them into another. Though the techniques themselves may be unchanged, this shift in context has a revitalising effect. The familiar is placed in new surroundings, where it blooms into something unfamiliar — just as a downpour may be dreaded in January, then welcomed in July, when it brings with it the promise of a rainbow.

That’s why NPR Voice seems more original in a visual medium, where it’s less commonly used. Once upon a time, it blossomed on the radio for much the same reason: not because its ellipses and lilting tones represented a radically new way of speaking, but because the cadences of ordinary conversation were so rarely heard over the airwaves.

Copycat is the story of a horror fan and filmmaker named Rolfe Kanefsky. My first encounter with Rolfe came when I read an e-book that he had published in the late-1990s called Making Nothing at the Age of 20 (now unavailable through traditional channels, but archived here).

In the book, Rolfe details the making of There’s Nothing Out There, a post-modern horror film he conceived in 1989, when he was barely out of his teens. His account is an unfiltered glimpse into the reality of sudden Hollywood success and its inevitable comedown, as searing as any of Peter Biskind’s more accomplished oral histories of the Hollywood hype machine, but with the undeniable (though uneasy) benefit of having been written without much hindsight.

Rolfe in 1991, at an all-night horror marathon in Drexel, Ohio.

As a result, the prose is confident — even over-confident — and unashamed of its author’s continued emotional involvement in the rollercoaster that was the production, completion and release of There’s Nothing Out There.

From raising $80,000 with no existing film credits, to briefly being courted for directorial duties on Child’s Play 3, Rolfe’s story is an outrageous one, but he tells it with a straightforward (if self-mythologising) candour that’s immediately engaging and consistently likeable.

The book takes an eleventh hour turn for the suspenseful, courtesy of a penultimate chapter in which Rolfe details the resurgence of horror cinema in the mid-1990s—a shift in the genre’s fortunes that sadly came too late to rescue There’s Nothing Out There from obscurity. At the centre of this resurgence was Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s Scream, a box office hit that bore a striking similarity to Rolfe’s debut, at least in the eyes of Rolfe himself.

Both Scream and There’s Nothing Out There place self-aware teens at the centre of clichéd horror movie scenarios, and both films appoint a self-professed horror fanatic as the audience’s guide through the ensuing onslaught of genre tropes (in There’s Nothing Out There, his name is Mike; in Scream, it’s Randy).

Of course, just as NPR Voice gains new meaning as it travels from one medium to the next, this post-modern premise got a new lease of life when it was placed in the context of a $15m Hollywood movie. For all the lo-fi charm of Rolfe’s film, Scream’s larger budget allowed it to share an aesthetic with the mainstream horror movies it so gleefully subverted, which turned out to be a master stroke.

Even at the time, Rolfe recognised that the similarities could well be coincidental, but he couldn’t deny the irritation he felt in the face of Scream’s runaway success:

‘Scream was raved through the roof by the critics. “So original!” one exclaimed. “Nobody has ever done anything like this before!” claimed another.
‘I bit my tongue.’

It’s a feeling we’ve all had at one point or another: the frustration of seeing our ideas more successfully deployed by someone else. Only in Rolfe’s case, the stakes were punishingly high and the details tantalisingly bizarre (one of the few producers to show any interest in There’s Nothing Out There had been Jonathan Craven, son of Wes).

I found myself retelling Rolfe’s story at every opportunity, sharing the e-book with friends and recounting its details to more or less anyone who’d listen. Eventually, for reasons too convoluted to get into here, word got back to Rolfe of my enthusiasm, and he e-mailed to thank me for ‘keeping There’s Nothing Out There alive’.

In January 2014, I visited Rolfe at his home in North Hollywood. The entrance to his apartment complex was fitted with a sign warning that ‘hazardous materials’ were located on the property, and though I was later assured that such warnings are common in California, it was nonetheless an appropriately sinister start to an afternoon of horror discourse.

Rolfe’s apartment, as seen in his short film Mood Boobs. A poster for There’s Nothing Out There hangs in the background.

Rolfe welcomed me inside and I saw that his apartment was covered floor to ceiling in genre memorabilia — a shrine to the lifelong passion he’d turned into a career. We sat around his coffee table and I switched on my microphone. Rolfe’s cat wandered aimlessly around the room, stopping occasionally to flirt with the audio equipment and render patches of my recording unusable.

I asked Rolfe to tell me the story of There’s Nothing Out There, and then kept my mouth shut for most of the next two hours as he guided me through the film’s history in his own words, and at his own pace. It was immediately clear that this was a story he’d told countless times before, its ebbs and flows refined through constant retelling, like any prized personal anecdote.

Weeks later, I began to set Rolfe’s words to picture, namely excerpts from the horror films with which he was so infatuated—everything from the Abbott and Costello serials of the 1940s to the slasher classics that gave him hope for the future of horror in the early 1980s.

VHS-sourced footage from Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Leprechaun, The Amityville Horror and Child’s Play 3, as featured in Copycat.

This approach was partly inspired by Rolfe’s charming habit of filtering his stories through the prism of pop culture, using movies and TV shows as conversational shorthand.

When Rolfe described his childhood, he didn’t simply draw from personal memory, but from the collective cultural memory of The Hardy Boys. When I asked him about his experience of the L.A. riots, which took place just after he moved to Los Angeles in 1992, he talked in terms of Hollywood production design, specifically the distinctive visual sensibility of Mad Max. In telling the story of his own life, Rolfe took the familiar and set it to work in new and exciting ways.

The pop cultural collage I assembled was a fitting accompaniment to Rolfe’s words, but it did nothing ease certain reservations I had about the words themselves. As selfish as it sounds, I felt frustrated that Rolfe hadn’t told the story in quite the way that I would have. In the months since I’d first read his e-book, my telling of Rolfe’s story had diverged from his original, and now I unreasonably expected him to have kept pace with my changes.

The irony of trying to control a story about someone losing control of a story was not lost on me. If anything, it reassured me I might be on the right path. I decided to work my own voice into the film—NPR-style—as a second narrator, parallel to Rolfe. It felt wrong, as though I was appropriating a story that was rightfully his, just like Craven had.

At the same time, maybe even for the same reason, it felt right.

Shortly after Copycat’s premiere, a producer at Vanity Fair e-mailed me to ask a few questions about the film, with a view to acquiring it for the magazine’s online platform. Chief among them: why had I not approached Craven (who sadly passed away after the film’s completion) and Williamson for comment, as any responsible journalist would do?

I couldn’t defend the decision, except to say that I knew the film would lose something in extending them the right to reply. Whether Scream’s makers cited There’s Nothing Out There as an inspiration, or rubbished the very notion of a similarity between the two films, their response would take the air out of Rolfe’s telling, deflating a story that’s been carefully refined over two decades with a single, blunt stab of certainty.

Some stories are better half-told, better for stopping short of the reveal.

Jamie Kennedy as Randy in Scream; Craig Peck as Mike in There’s Nothing Out There

In the New York Times, Teddy Wayne characterises NPR Voice as deceptive, and its speakers as disingenuous:

‘These salespeople reveal the ostensibly “genuine” cracks in their facades.
How could I be deceiving you, the catch in the voice, the exposed seam in a sweater or the actor cracking up during an outtake asks, when I’m vulnerably baring my … flaws?’

To some extent, he’s right. NPR Voice is a product, and its speakers are salespeople. But there’s a reason the sales pitch resonates even after you take note of its artifice, and it’s a reason Wayne overlooks.

When it comes to storytelling, we’re all salespeople. We all phrase and rephrase, adapting our stories to suit each new audience and atmosphere, reshaping and revising them even as they come tumbling out of our mouths.

We tell a story to a loved one at 8am and tell it again, better, to a colleague at 3. One day, we figure, we’ll get it just right.

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