Remaking Myself

Writer-director Chadd Harbold on remaking the 1960 film Private Property, out this week, and the other movies he drew on for inspiration.

I first encountered the restoration of Leslie Stevens’ Private Property (1960) at a Warren Oates retrospective at Film at Lincoln Center in July 2016. I was scrounging around for inspiration for a self-contained thriller after my feature Long Nights Short Mornings had failed to connect with distributors out of SXSW a couple months prior.

I knew very little about Private Property before I saw it. I noted that it also starred Corey Allen from Rebel Without a Cause and had some striking imagery in the program. Allen plays Duke, an arrogant criminal/drifter, who, along with his partner, Boots (Oates), follows a woman they see at a gas station home, hoping to manipulate her into seduction. Cinelicious had restored the film beautifully, and I was mesmerized by it.

Private Property (1960) / Private Property (2022)

Like Detour and The Hitch-Hiker, it was clearly made on the cheap, in this case at the director’s home, starring his wife. But it was shot by Ted D. McCord (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and camera operator Conrad Hall – the film was lush and daring, stylish and raw. It had a danger to the romance and tenderness to the sexuality. It felt ahead of its time – taking tropes from the heyday of film noir in the mid-forties, but infusing it with vitality from the recent French New Wave. It had a compelling but simple story, and complex character dynamics. I thought it could be interesting to update it, expand it, deepen it and break it apart.

Private Property (1960) / Private Property (2022)

What really leapt out at me was Corey Allen’s portrayal of Duke. I thought immediately that Shiloh Ferndandez (who starred in Long Nights Short Mornings) could kill that part. I walked out of Lincoln Center inspired by a new idea. I had never attempted a remake before, and it forced me to push myself in style, tone and theme in ways I hadn’t before.

Private Property (1960) / Private Property (2022)

I started working on the screenplay right away, without the remake rights. The film was obscure, so I figured it would be in the public domain or had reverted back to the estate of the producer or director. In any case, when securing rights for a film from a book or an article or an original movie, usually you only have around 18 months to actually make it, before you have to renew the option. So I started writing, and Shiloh and I kicked it around for a couple years until we decided to pursue making it in earnest.

Private Property (1960) / Private Property (2022)

At the end of 2020, when we secured the financing, I was recovering from the whiplash of a traumatic shoot as a producer at the start of the year, then the COVID lockdown, followed by two other productions, which went well but carried with them the new reality of health protocols, etc., while mounting my first effort as a director in six years, in a genre and town I had never worked in before. I was so incredibly, will-owe-them-the-rest-of-my-life lucky to have director of photography Antonio Cisneros and production designer Mollie Wartelle on my side.

In Cold Blood (1967) / Private Property (2022)

Covid threw everything into upheaval, but one bright side was that it allowed me and Antonio more time to prep – to make a shot list, and trade influences like movies, photographs and paintings. Thinking about remakes, Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear kept popping up, not necessarily as a direct influence, but because of its approach. I love how he brings in other films and influences from the time of the original, not just the actual text. So while we did study the original Leslie Stevens film, mimicking shots and setups that we thought were so brilliant we couldn’t beat them, we also brought in a lot of different references from the time. Since we bifurcated the narrative into two perspectives (the woman in trouble, Kathryn, followed by Duke’s), we were able to widen our scope in terms of style.

La Notte (1961) / Private Property (2022)

For the first half of the film – her perspective – we looked at films from around 1960 about romance piercing through isolation. So, All That Heaven Allows and La Notte became key for us. The former shared plot elements – a lonely housewife enamored with her gardener – and we lifted a few shots directly (minus the Technicolor, sadly). But it also inspired me to be unafraid of a little melodrama. Cynicism and irony are fashionable, but I tried to push back on that with some genuine earnestness and naked emotion. And La Notte is the ultimate film about beautiful, sad people in glass houses. We tried to infuse some of that ennui into Kathryn’s lonely life.

The Night of the Hunter (1955) / Private Property (2022)

For the second half, which is focused on the men, we embraced the late-period film noir. Before it went self-conscious in the ’70s, but after the boom in the ’40s, there was a period where ostensibly mainstream noirs were brimming with radical visual ideas. Like Scorsese, we studied The Night of the Hunter for its cinematic abstraction, storybook operatics and out-of-time ungrounding. It’s a film like no other, and we didn’t get anywhere near it, but it was a constant inspiration to be bold with incongruous lighting, aggressive framing and stylish storytelling. The other late noir we obsessed over was In Cold Blood, which as a film seems like it has fallen out of the canon in the last few years but I think is an almost impossibly great movie. It has a sense of chilly remove, a docudrama (rather than a documentary) that makes us feel like we are watching something we aren’t supposed to.

All That Heaven Allows (1955) / Private Property (2022)

What I’m getting at, I guess, is that going about remaking a film that already exists might have felt limiting at first, but instead was boundless with possibilities. I was reinventing myself along with the material – and having a guideline of plot and characters from 60 years ago only made me want to fuck with everything else more. The narrative timeline, the perspective, the style, the tone – I never felt braver. I can’t say if it all worked or not, but I know that when we were pushing ourselves to find new places to go, I was at home.

Featured image of writer-director Chadd Harbold with actor Ashley Benson on the set of Private Property by Colin West, courtesy Chadd Harbold.

Chadd Harbold is a Brooklyn-based director, producer, and writer. He wrote, produced, and directed Private Property starring Shiloh Fernandez, out May 14 through Lionsgate, and Long Nights Short Mornings. Recently, he produced Colin West’s Linoleum, starring Jim Gaffigan; and Aharon Keshales’ South Of Heaven, starring Jason Sudeikis. His other producing credits include Ana Asensio’s Most Beautiful Island, Dan Berk & Robert Olsen’s Villains, Rashaad Ernesto Green’s Premature and horror icon Larry Fessenden’s Depraved. As a director and producer, his films have screened around the world, including AFI Fest, BAMcinemaFest, BFI London Film Festival, Fantaspoa, Fantasia Film Festival, Film at Lincoln Center, International Film Festival Rotterdam, The Museum of Modern Art, Tribeca Festival, and Sitges Film Festival, among others. He is a Film Independent Spirit Award nominee, Gotham Fellow, and graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.