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A Twist on the Holiday Romantic Comedy: A Conversation with ‘The Noel Diary’ Director and Co-Writer Charles Shyer

Charles Shyer shares with Script about how this project came on his radar, how he tackled it as both a writer and director and adding his own twist, his filmmaking journey and so much more.

When best-selling author Jake Turner (Justin Hartley) returns home at Christmas to settle his estranged mother's estate, he discovers a diary that may hold secrets to his own past and that of Rachel (Barrett Doss) - an intriguing young woman on a mission of her own. Together, they embark on a journey to confront their pasts and discover a future that's totally unexpected.

Once in a blue moon, you get a Holiday romcom that surprisingly to your delight flips the script on you, and this is once in a blue moon. With a title like The Noel Diary, you'd think this movie would be shoving all the romcom tropes down your throat, but no, the filmmakers made sure that wasn't the case - at least not obviously. 

The film was directed and co-written by Charles Shyer. He's best known for a medley of most likely you're most rewatched films over the last few decades like Private Benjamin, Smokey and the Bandit, Jumpin' Jack Flash, and Father of the Bride, to name a few. That similar sense of whimsy and universal emotional connection is carried through in his last endeavor. I had the utmost pleasure of speaking with Charles about how this project came on his radar, how he tackled it as both a writer and director and adding his own twist, his filmmaking journey and so much more.

[L-R] Barrett Doss as Rachel, Justin Hartley as Jake in The Noel Diary. Photo by KC Bailey/Netflix.

[L-R] Barrett Doss as Rachel, Justin Hartley as Jake in The Noel Diary. Photo by KC Bailey/Netflix.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: How did this project initially come across your desk? And what attracted you to the material?

Charles Shyer: Basically, Netflix had come to me with other Christmas movies in the past, and I didn't really like any of them. And I've been turning them down, and finally, this script came across my desk and I felt that it's a story that could exist without Christmas on its own.

Charles Shyer

Charles Shyer

There was an existing script that I didn't feel was right up my alley. So, Rebecca Connor, and I rewrote the story pretty substantially and I started to really like it a lot. So, then I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ From there on, it was just a dream, to be honest. There were a lot of stumbling blocks, because we started in Vancouver, and we got shut down because of COVID. So, we had to move to Connecticut, there was a lot of physical stuff but in terms of the cast, and the whole process. I had all the crew that I wanted; it was just a really good experience.

Sadie: When you're taking over rewriting a script, and especially coming on as a director, are you also writing to your director’s eye?

Charles: Oh, absolutely. I didn't pay a whole lot of attention to the novel, because I just wanted to go in a different direction in a lot of ways. The premise was there, but I just wanted to make it my own. And it's very hard, I think, as a director to, for me at least, to do other people's stuff. I know it sounds a little pretentious maybe, but I have to kind of make it my own. It's this kind of thing if an actor asks you a question, and you've written it, you know the answer. It's not like an interpretation, it's more from your heart and your soul. And that makes it easier.

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Sadie: Right, you need that emotional connection to the material so that you can share your vision with everyone else.

Charles: Yeah, exactly. And you're confident in the answer. I've only done one or two movies, I guess, one movie that I didn't write, but I rewrote that too.

Sadie: Yeah, you have to put your own twist on it.

Charles: I do. Yeah. [laughs]

Sadie: As the director, how do you stay true to theme without veering off?

Charles: I don't really know the answer to that, because I realized at a certain point, that I'm older than everybody else, [laughs] and I guess I've been doing this so long. And I've been a part of the movie business for my whole life - my dad was in it. It's like the family business. I was fortunate enough to work with Garry Marshall - I was Garry's assistant for a long time. And he taught me everything. He was a little bit of a taskmaster, but he was just so smart and such a good mentor. I didn't go to film school; my film school was really reading scripts. I read every script I could ever get my hands on - the classics. That's kind of how I learned how to write I think, kind of stealing other people's styles and stuff like that. Seriously. But if you steal from Billy Wilder, I mean...

Sadie: You can't go wrong!

Charles: [laughs] Yeah, right.

Sadie: And wow, Garry Marshall. That's a master class at its finest.

Charles: There were a few other people who were fortunate enough to fall under Garry's tutelage and we just were lucky. I guess he noticed something in us that he felt had potential. I mean, he obviously did. My job originally was getting him getting his car washed, doing his Christmas shopping, and getting him fudgesicles [laughs] that was my job. And the trade-off was I got to sit in on story meetings. And then when they were over, I would say stuff to Garry, because I would never speak up in the story meeting - I was 21 years old or 22, I was really scared, but I would give my ideas afterward. And he said, 'That's good. Speak up more.' And he would encourage me, and then he said, 'You could be a writer.' It came from that. So that was good.

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Sadie: Wow, that's amazing. For these characters, there's definitely authenticity to how they speak and maneuver, especially with the two leads. How do you approach character development, especially once you have your cast locked in?

Charles: Justin [Hartley], I could tell from his TV show that he had an amazing range. And he also happens to be one of the most gorgeous guys I've ever seen in my life. [laughs] And he can really act and he's a great guy. And he's just very collaborative. 

Barrett [Doss] was somebody I didn't know at all. But I read a lot of actresses and I just felt that she was just an original. She reminded me a lot oddly of Diane Keaton, because in a weird way Diane is very undisciplined, in a good way. Like the script supervisor on the three movies I've done with Diane is always going insane, because she'll eat with one hand, and then she'll eat with the other hand, and she's unconscious. She doesn't know that you can't match it. But she just wants to be in the zone. And Barrett's a lot like that. Barrett just goes with it. If she makes a mistake in the dialogue, she just keeps going. I mean, you'll see that there's some points in the movie, like one time the window goes up when she's saying goodbye, and she just kept going and I kept it in the movie because it was a mistake that was really good. Or she'll mispronounce a word or something like that and then just keep going. And I love that spontaneity about her. And I think she and Justin really just connected. You're lucky when the chemistry comes together like that, it's fortuitous.

[L-R] Justin Hartley as Jake, Barrett Doss as Rachel in The Noel Diary. Photo by KC Bailey/Netflix.

[L-R] Justin Hartley as Jake, Barrett Doss as Rachel in The Noel Diary. Photo by KC Bailey/Netflix.

Sadie: Being both writer and director on this film, how often were you going back to the script to refine their characters' voices or did you leave it up to them to make it their own?

Charles: I think it's a combination of both. With a movie like this, which we shot in 27 days, and I've never shot a movie that quickly, we did a lot of rehearsal. A lot of the things in the movie came out of improvisation in the rehearsals, and then we'd write that into the script. So, that was a big benefit. Plus, I storyboarded everything. I'm very well prepared. Which you have to be when you're doing a movie in 27 days, you've got to really move, man.

And we were shooting in the middle of summer in Connecticut, in a heatwave, with no snow and a Christmas movie, and we're going, 'Oh shit, how are we going to do this?' And these poor people are bundled up in scarves and parkas and stuff and we're in shorts and t-shirts. [laughs] But they were troopers. And I had five principals who were just home run hitters. It was a very small cast, but of those five principles, they were all just Aces. I got lucky.

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Sadie: With a quick turnaround like that, how much coverage are you allotting yourself?

Charles: The DP that I work with Ashley Rowe, I've done four movies with, so we have a shorthand, and we go over the storyboards together. We're now down to a place that we can really move and I just keep going. You don't come back tomorrow, it's not Broadway, you're not gonna have a chance to redo it again. So, you got to get it right. And you know, the AD is checking his watch, and you're avoiding his eyesight [laughs] and just got to keep going. And you try to make it up later. I don't think I compromised too much on this, because I was so well prepared. I knew it was going to be a horse race.

Sadie: When it comes to writing these romcoms and dramas, what comes first in your own writing? Is it a mix of characters and story, or a theme you can relate to?

Charles: I think I do relate. I mean, look, how many of these movies have you seen where the woman is exiting the store with her hands full of Christmas presents, she bumps into the cute guy, drops all the presents, he helps her pick them up, and they fall in love? I mean, I don't want to do that kind of bullshit. I can't make those kinds of movies. It's like Billy Wilder said, Nancy [Meyers] and I had the privilege of working with Billy a little bit when we were doing the movie Baby Boom, and he said, 'We all want the same thing, us writers and directors. We want to make them laugh and make them cry.' So basically, what he's saying is you want to do a movie that is enjoyable, but that has substance. And I think that's for me the big drive. And all my movies, I think except for maybe one or two, one especially, but most of my movies I have tried to make them not of the moment. Billy also said to us, 'Comedy is not like fine wine, it doesn't age well.' [laughs] And he was so right. So, you're trying to make a movie that's not of the moment, that has substance. Like Father of the Bride is still relevant today. I think Private Benjamin is too, some of my movies really hold up. I think you just try to make movies that have staying power. Which is hard to do.

Sadie: It is, especially in this day and age with so much content out there now and all the different streamers. And everybody wants to chase the "hot thing" right now, and most of the time those films don’t have staying power.

Charles: Right. I think also, you have to be aware of referenced jokes or referenced lines that in 10 years, nobody's gonna know who you're talking about. Everything's moving so fast. Movie theaters are going the way of bookstores and Tower Records. It's all confusing and sad and you just got to keep moving forward. You have to adapt. The movie business has changed so much, certainly for me since I started. It's just drastic. But streamers seem to be one of the ways to go. So, I'm trying to adapt to that. Netflix was very good to me. If I stayed within budget and on schedule, they left me alone creatively. I've never had a better experience, because studios get all over you. And I'm talking publicity, they always seem to think they know more than you do. But that place is very collaborative, so that was great.

Sadie: We kind of touched on this briefly before, but what initially inspired you to become a storyteller?

Charles: I think because I was a horrible student in school - I mean horrible, it would be hard to be worse than me - I thought, 'Look, dude,' I talked to myself, I said, 'you can either be in advertising, you maybe have a shot there. Maybe you could get into politics and be a campaign manager, or be in entertainment writing, but you ain't gonna work at a bank, you're not going to be a doctor, you're not going to be a lawyer. You better find some kind of avenue here.' So that was kind of it. It was diminishing returns, I didn't have a lot. I did know I could kind of write. I used to win these little essay contests in grammar school and stuff. My dad encouraged me to write. I wrote a stupid little 11-page script when I was like 10 or 11. And he said he took it to a producer, and they liked it. [laughs] I'm sure he didn't, but it was encouraging to me. So, I always felt I have a shot as a writer. And then of course, Garry.


Sadie: Any advice for writers that are tackling a romcom feature? Should they lean into tropes or avoid the tropes?

Charles: Yeah, I think you have to put twists on stuff today. I don't think you can lean into tropes, because everybody's so ahead of you now, everything moves so fast. So, I think anything original, which is really hard to do. I have a kind of a romcom that I've written just recently with Rebecca and there's a big twist that we put in it so it's not just a romcom, it's a May-December romance, and there's a third character that's a ghost in it, which sounds kind of corny, but I think it really works. You just gotta have something different, I think, but something that comes from you. Not different for the sake of being different, you know, because then it's pie-in-the-sky bullshit. It's hard, man. It's very hard because so many stories have already been done. And I'm not like an authority on romcoms, because I don't know, maybe Baby Boom is a romcom, but I don't think my other movies are really romcoms.


Sadie: I think that’s such great advice. A lot of writers are figuring out what their voices are, but it comes down to what your spin on a story is. As you said, every idea has been done, it's just you haven't done your version of that yet.

Charles: Yeah, your voice is going to be different, if you really stick to your voice. We can't be Bob Zemeckis, we can't be other people. We're not going to write Sleepless in Seattle, it's been written.

The Noel Diary is available on Netflix on November 24th, 2022.